Monday, January 03, 2011

LiteHist Boy Rides Again: "The 'True Grit' Eye-Patch Dichotomy"!

Ah, if this blogger still labored in the groves of academe, he would be scribbling feverishly on an article that delved into the politics of the eye patches in "True Grit" (1969) and "True Grit" (2010). In the original film, John Wayne portrayed U.S. Marshal Reuben (Rooster) Cogburn wearing a patch over his left (unseeing) eye. In the more recent "True Grit" (2010), Jeff Bridges portrays the same lawman wearing a patch over his right (unseeing) eye. The unseeing left eye in 1969 was a slap at political leftists that John Wayne detested. In the hands of the Coen brothers, the patch over the lawman's right eye in 2010 was a tit-for-tat shot at the right-wing Dumbos and Teabaggers. Aha! "The 'True Grit' Eye-Patch Dichotomy" would be the title of this masterful contribution to knowledge. If this is a (fair & balanced) history lite fantasy, so be it.

[x Cronk Review]
The Duke And The Dude
By Thomas Doherty

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at

"True grit"—once known as "sand" and not to be confused with cojones—is terse praise for the bedrock quality desired in the American male. Stoic, hard-edged, and laconic, the gruff embodiment of Hemingway's "grace under pressure" and Tom Wolfe's "the right stuff"; skilled in firearms, steady astride a horse or jockeying an F-16, he coolly performs the work at hand, usually a task involving the swift application of lethal force. No need to tell him to "man up."

For generations of American men, and women, the incarnation of that masculine ideal was John Wayne, who, in a fortuitous merging of on-screen persona and off-screen personality, won an Oscar playing a version of his own myth in "True Grit" (1969). This classic Hollywood western, maybe the last of the classic Hollywood westerns, was remade, or rather re-imagined, for this holiday season by the Coen brothers, with Jeff Bridges starring in the Wayne role. Since the Coens are Hollywood's most gifted genre-twisters, one might expect a sardonic spin on the western and its manly hero. But some conventions are resistant to revision. A faith in true gritness must come with the territory.

To understand why, and how, the genre trumps the brothers, let's take the measure of the Wayne myth. Before he became a punch line, a synonym for Ur-macho bluster (and an epithet for blundering America foreign policy), Wayne was an actor of some repute; by some reckoning, he was the most popular Hollywood star ever. He had "the longest and most successful career of any actor in film history," decreed Variety upon his death, in 1979, after it tallied the box-office profits from his 120-plus feature films.

Like most larger-than-life American archetypes, Wayne grew out of a conscious act of self-invention. Born in 1907, the son of an Iowa druggist who went bust as a California rancher, he dropped his androgynous birth name (Marion Morrison), borrowed his nickname from the family dog (Duke), and practiced his trademark say-that-again-pard'ner-and-you're-dead look in front of a mirror. Wayne knocked around for years in B-level horse operas until director John Ford cast him as the Ringo Kid in "Stagecoach" (1939). Ford highlighted the entrance of the actor who became his surrogate son with one of the great star-is-born moments in Hollywood history: At the crack of a rifle and a pull-in close-up, Wayne rose true and strong out of the frontier landscape, another monolith against the sky in Monument Valley.

Although he played bluejackets, leathernecks, and Green Berets at Fort Apache, Mount Suribachi, and Saigon, Wayne was never a for-real soldier. He somehow escaped the contempt that GI's spat at enlistment-adverse entertainers, and the chasm between the man and myth at the moment of decision gives psychobiographers a convenient explanation for the chest-thumping patriotism and virulent anti-Communism of Wayne's postwar years.

After the war, director Howard Hawks aligned the Ringo Kid with the other side of the generation gap in "Red River" (1948), and Wayne began his extended middle period playing a stern patriarch who first breaks and then mentors a succession of uppity male ingenues, some worth the effort (Montgomery Clift, Jeffrey Hunter), others not so much (Ricky Nelson, Fabian). Whether at boot camp or in Indian country, Wayne taught boys how to be men.

The dissenting opinion on the Wayne School of Manhood came with Vietnam, of course, and especially after he starred in and co-directed "The Green Berets" (1968), propaganda that tried to turn Vietnam into a World War II combat film. Little wonder that in the memoirs and movies created in the backfire of Vietnam, Wayne looms as a ghost rider in the sky. Suddenly out of fashion, the actor was no longer a model to be imitated but a toxin to be purged from the body politic.

Even so, only hearts of stone refused to melt before Wayne's last, most nakedly self-revelatory performance. In "The Shootist" (1976), he played an old gunslinger dying of cancer. Contemplating Wayne's enduring appeal, Lauren Bacall, his co-star in the film, observed that it wasn't his strength but his sensitivity that made so him popular. You don't stay on top of the marquee bill for so many years with just a macho posture, she said. Look at his eyes.

Or eye. As the monocular, whiskey-swilling U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit" [1969], Wayne played both sides of his gender card, caricaturing and celebrating the cocksure masculinity he reveled in. "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" he brayed, reins between his teeth, rifle in one hand, six-gun in the other, as he rode into the breach.

The film was based on Charles Portis's 1968 novel, now considered a minor classic of western fiction, with many critics forgoing the qualifier—a straight-shooting, target-fixated tale of revenge narrated in old age by the flinty spinster Mattie Ross. As a headstrong 14-year-old in the 1870s, Mattie sets out from Yell County, AR, to bring the killer of her father to justice. Given to quoting scripture (except for the passage about "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord"), she is a pure product of the Calvinist stock that broke the soil, killed the American Indians, and, as the schoolbooks used to and no longer say, conquered the West. A proud Cumberland Presbyterian, a denomination spawned during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, she will not rest easy until that "cur was roasting and screaming in hell!" She recruits Cogburn ("a pitiless man, double tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking"), whose reluctance to work for a girl is overcome by the color of her money. With a strutting Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (pronounced La Beef) in tow, the trio hits the trail. Along the way, Mattie "earns her spurs," gets her man, and endures a bit of hell herself in a pit of symbolic rattlesnakes.

The original "True Grit" was brought to the screen by a veteran but by no means over-the-hill gang of old Hollywood hands: Hal B. Wallis, the famed Warner Bros. producer who went independent when the studio system went belly up, purchased the screen rights from Portis, and shepherded the project to market. With Raoul Walsh and John Ford out to pasture, the director's chair was filled by Henry Hathaway, a seasoned pro known as a studio workhorse, which was meant as a compliment. The gorgeous Technicolor vistas of the Colorado territory­—a location more than a few days' ride from Arkansas, but who's counting­­­—were shot by director of photography Lucien Ballard, a 40-year veteran who began his career lensing Marlene Dietrich. Perhaps the crucial contribution came from screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, whose adaptation kept true to the book, not just in the storyline but in Mattie's devotion to the faith of her fathers.

In the pivotal role of Mattie, Kim Darby—a little-known actress Wallis spotted while flipping the television dial one night—is the true backbone of the film; Wayne had what actors call "the character part." (Mia Farrow was originally cast to play Mattie, but dropped out when Wallis refused to hire Roman Polanski to direct.) Country-pop singer Glen Campbell, then riding high on the charts, plays the Texas Ranger who horns his way into the hunt.

"True Grit" was a critical and commercial hit, no mean feat in 1969, a banner year for westerns, most of which, unlike "True Grit," sided with the outlaws: George Roy Hill's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," and, stretching generic borders slightly, John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" and Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider." At the time, "True Grit" seemed a throwback, but in retrospect Rooster's affectionate adieus to Mattie ("Come and see a fat old man sometime!") seems no less sentimental than the elegiac slow-mo death throes of "The Wild Bunch" and the sepia-toned nostalgia of "Butch Cassidy." Besides, "True Grit" is not exactly a Roy Rogers singalong: It opens with a triple hanging, has no love story, its line of retribution is remorseless, and, in a departure from the book, it kills off the likable Texas Ranger. "True Grit" had more in common with the westerns of 1969 than 1939.

The already well-trodden territory of True Grit may seem unlikely grist for the musings of Joel and Ethan Coen, a brother team of not-so-nice Jewish boys from Minnesota. But beginning with their Texas-set calling card, "Blood Simple" (1984), and on through "No Country for Old Men" (2007), the pair has doted on the frontier noir, a genre littered with hapless hombres skidding on the treacherous black ice of the open road. (In the past, direction has usually been credited to Joel, production to Ethan; both write, and I can't tell where one leaves off and the other begins. For "True Grit," the siblings share auteur billing.)

In Coen country, the western expanse, typically betokening liberation and opportunity in the American imagination, unfolds as a plain of broken dreams and dead ends. The very title of "No Country for Old Men"—in which the grizzled marshal fails to catch the killer or save the woman—rebukes the plot of "True Grit." Heretofore the Coens' notion of a lawman with true grit was the very pregnant Marge Gunderson in the snow-blind noir "Fargo" (1996), who behind that Minnesota-nice manner hides a savvy detective.

In a gallery dominated by the craven, the pathetic, and the creepy, the Coen brothers have, perhaps despite themselves, created one colorful portrait of American manhood for the ages: the Dude in "The Big Lebowski" (1998), the beloved cult film that has inspired devoted reenactors, a bowling craze in Russia, and a subfield of cultural studies (see Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe's 2009 collection, The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies). As played by Jeff Bridges (with two eyes, both dilated), the Dude is a man with no visible means of support or identification (except a charge card from Ralph's), who gets beaten up, tormented by a marmot, drugged by a pornographer, punched out by a police chief, and assaulted by nihilists. Easygoing, easily led, sexually passive, intoxicated on a recreational drug that is not rotgut whiskey, he abides on dumb luck. The Dude is no Duke.

Being a working actor, not a walking icon, Bridges has carved out a more varied and risky career than Wayne, though he bids to match him in longevity if not numerical output. No stranger to the western, he has roots extending back to Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show" (1971), itself a Texas-set frontier noir in which the last movie being shown in a dying town was, no surprise, "Red River," and stretching to "Heaven's Gate" (1980), which really was the last picture show for United Artists. (In the single-degree-of-separation world of the Hollywood western, Bridges is the son of actor Lloyd Bridges, who co-starred in "High Noon" (1952), a film Wayne deemed un-American because it ends with the sheriff tossing his badge in the dirt.)

A traditional heartthrob who looks great in a tux ("The Fabulous Baker Boys," 1989) or buckskin ("Wild Bill," 1995), Jeff Bridges has also played aliens ("Starman," 1984), psychos ("The Vanishing," 1993), patsies ("Arlington Road," 1999), and can currently be seen 3-D'd in "Tron: Legacy" (2010). The Oscar he copped for "Crazy Heart" (2009) was for Bridges what the "True Grit" award was for Wayne: overdue recognition for a lifetime riding tall in the saddle; for a film in which he played, come to think of it, a fat old drunk.

Remakes are always seen through the filter of the original: The eyes scan the screen for fidelity or departures, weighing the performances and tracing the plot lines against the well-remembered template. (Why is Wayne's Rooster missing his left eye whereas Bridges' Rooster is missing his right eye? Politics?) The Coens insist that their version is an alternative adaptation of the Portis book, not a remake of the 1969 film, which they claim not to have seen since childhood, and which they do not nod to by way of irony or homage. Yet even if the Coens are not beset with the anxiety of influence, spectators may find the shadow of the 1969 film hard to shake. The Coens' version is certainly truer to the source material, and is a sharp break with the previous film in one harsh way, though it would be churlish, to those who have not seen the film, to reveal in what way.

Almost as if doing penance for the downbeat ending and alienating bushwhacks in "No Country for Old Men," the Coens' "True Grit" plays it straight down the line, following the trail laid out by Portis and lifting whole lines of narration and dialogue from the book. As Rooster, Bridges grumbles, mumbles, and out-overacts Wayne; as a raven-haired, pigtailed Mattie, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (younger and cuter than Darby) earns her thespian spurs; and as the strutting Texas Ranger, Matt Damon just seems happy to be along for the ride. It's no-fail material, executed with the brothers' no-frills chops, and sumptuously shot by director of photography Roger Deakins, though a bit heavy on the yellowish chiaroscuro meant to evoke the gas-and-lantern interiors of a pre-Edison era. If the film has a weakness, it is in the secondary casting. No contemporary western can match the bench strength of the character actors Hathaway could call up: Robert Duvall as the desperado Lucky Ned Pepper, Jeff Corey as the murderous cur, and the indispensable Strother Martin as a harried merchant who meets his match in Mattie.

That the genre-twisting Coens hew to the straight and narrow in "True Grit" may have less to do with a renewed commitment to the code of the Hollywood western­­—we know they're not genuflecting at that altar—than to their respect for Portis's book and their affection for the quirky personalities who people it. The strength of the book is not the narrative—the oft-told tale of frontier retribution—but the one-of-a-kind characters we meet on the trail and see through Mattie's eyes. Quentin Tarantino, the Coens' peer in genre demolition, defines certain films as "hangout movies." We go for the pleasure of the company of the people we meet on screen. "The Big Lebowski" is a perfect example. Mattie, Rooster, and the desperadoes are good company, too good to mess with.

Of course, good company on screen is what stardom is all about—being with the likes of John Wayne or Jeff Bridges. When Wayne won the Oscar for "True Grit," ("I should have put on that eye patch 35 years ago," he quipped at the podium, wiping tears from his face), there was some grousing from the new guard, but The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby set his colleagues straight, hailing the virtues of "a certain kind of movie star, whose effect is so special, so removed from the traditional conception of theatrical performing, that most critics can only conceive of it by saying it doesn't exist." That is, people liked being around John Wayne.

The Coens also have another agenda on their way West. The scriptural epigraph that opens the film ("The wicked flee when none pursueth") and the haunting hymnal music on the soundtrack are signals that the trail the Coens are most interested in following runs in a theological direction. In their last outing, "A Serious Man" (2009), the brothers played God by inflicting a biblical series of plagues on a modern Job, or maybe just a poor schmuck. In "True Grit," they turn from the cosmic mysteries of suburban Judaism to the contradiction at the core of the Puritan strain in the American bloodstream: a fierce will to power that coexists with a surrender to God's plan. In the book, Mattie breaks with the Cumberland Presbyterians because they are "not sound" on the Calvinist Doctrine of Election, which holds that sinners are saved by the unconditional grace of a God who has already made up His mind. "I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it," she says, which settles the matter.

Predestination be damned, however: Mattie moves heaven and earth to see that her will be done. She is the real force of nature on the frontier, riding roughshod over any man who gets in her way. "By god, she reminds me of me!" chortles Rooster in the Wayne version when she risks her life traversing a river on her pony. Traveling in the American frontier in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville met up with enough real-life Mattie Rosses to bestow his own apt words of appreciation. "She has scarcely ceased to be a child when she already thinks for herself, speaks with freedom, and acts on her own impulse," he wrote in Democracy in America. "Fever, solitude, and a tedious life had not broken the springs of her courage." The sly feminist joke savored by all three versions of "True Grit" is that it is the 14-year-old girl, armed with a righteous certainty about her errand into the wilderness, who best fits the title. Ω

[Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and author of Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (2007). Doherty serves on the editorial board of Cineaste and edits the film review section for the Journal of American History. He received a B.A. from Gonzaga University and a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Iowa.]

Copyright © 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education

Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.

Creative Commons License
Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

No comments:

Post a Comment

☛ STOP!!! Read the following BEFORE posting a Comment!

Include your e-mail address with your comment or your comment will be deleted by default. Your e-mail address will be DELETED before the comment is posted to this blog. Comments to entries in this blog are moderated by the blogger. Violators of this rule can KMA (Kiss My A-Double-Crooked-Letter) as this blogger's late maternal grandmother would say. No e-mail address (to be verified AND then deleted by the blogger) within the comment, no posting. That is the (fair & balanced) rule for comments to this blog.